December 2009


My friend M (who wishes to remain internet-anonymous) just moved to Thailand to work at a women’s shelter, and writes a blog that is infinitely funnier and more insightful than mine.  You should all check it out.

There are times when it’s hard to know if things are “Czech” or not.  When people behave in a certain way, when someone reacts to me as a non-Czech, I always have to wonder if it’s a matter of nationality or personality.  I can’t tell, for instance, when the person at the restaurant I’m trying to make a reservation at sighs and says, “Well, I guess you can come at that time,” if it’s because they’re genuinely unpleasant, or if it’s because we’re speaking English, and they, perhaps rightfully so, are tired of dealing with foreigners who can’t be bothered to learn the local language.  There are certainly times when I’m sure they’re just being obstinate.  My conversation with the receptionist for my building manager, for example (written phonetically for explanation and emphasis):

Me: Ahoj, Petra Navakova, prosim?  (Hello, Petra Navacova, please?)

Her: (Czechczechczechczech) (Something clearly along the lines of, Who? I can’t possibly think of anyone who works here who has a name remotely like that.)

Me: Um…mluvite anglitsky?

Her: Ne.

Me: Ahhh…Petra Navakova, prosim?

Her: (Czechczechczechczech)

Me: Petra Navakova?

(Several seconds of angry silence.)

Her: Ah, Petra Navakova.  Dobre.

I mean, really?  I understand that proper emphasis is important, but I feel reasonably confident that if someone called and asked to talk to Lindsay Lohan instead of Lindsay Lohan, I could still figure out who they meant.   It’s the same feeling I get when I’m in a movie theater, and the Czech part of the audience and the expat part of the audience laugh at completely different parts of the film.  2012? Not so funny to the Czechs.  Paranormal Activity? Absolutely hi-larious.

There is no time that I feel quite so American, though, as when I go out to lunch with my Czech co-workers.  I never thought of myself as a particularly American person.  Not that I’m ashamed of it, I just never identified one way or the other with the word.  It is here, though, that I realize how strongly my American-ness is bred into my actions.  Because, you see, Czechs (at least the ones that work at my law firm) are not very chatty people.  I never thought I was either, until I got here.

Every day, we go to lunch.  We talk about three things: What did you do/are you going to do this weekend?  Are you busy at work today?  Why are lawyers such jerks?  These topics last for roughly ten minutes, or, the time it takes to walk to wherever we’re eating, plus the time it takes for us to order.  And then we sit.

And sit.

And I get uncomfortable.  I am an American, and we make small talk.  We do not sit in silence while contemplating our napkins and the choice of cutlery sitting before us.  And so I ask questions.  Where do you live in Prague?  Have you always lived here?  I even brought out the big guns once by asking, How did you meet your husband?  I mean, who doesn’t like to talk about their significant other for at least a few minutes.  “On a bus.”  And… “That’s pretty much the whole story.”

And so it is, it seems.  The whole story can be summed up in a sentence: in the conversational cold war between America and the Czech Republic, I am destined to lose.